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The Things We Wish Volunteer Teams Knew Before Making the Trip

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

When it comes to volunteer teams, it’s a mixed bag of experiences for those who’ve been on the receiving end. Some people have had great experiences and can’t wait for the next visit. Others shudder with residual stress from past memories of volunteer teams gone awry. Taking all these experiences into consideration, I wanted to think of the why behind all of it. Why do some volunteer trips go well and others poorly? Why are some teams helpful and others a train wreck? After examining some common stories and repeated experiences, I managed to narrow down the list to five key elements. While not exhaustive, starting with these five elements will help volunteer teams and overseas workers have the most meaningful and fruitful time together.

Focus your efforts. Instead of bouncing around from one part of the globe to the next, commit yourselves to a certain area on the globe for a predetermined amount of time. Let’s say you choose to invest in India for three years. The first year of partnership can be spent learning about the culture, asking questions of people on the ground, regularly joining online prayer meetings, and assessing what the current needs are and how you can help. The second year and third year could then be spent partnering with workers by way of giving, focused prayer, and sending teams. Since people who move to another country have to spend at least a year focusing their efforts on learning about the culture and language, it’s not unreasonable to ask others to do the same. This will lead to a much more intentional partnership.

Be teachable. In a world full of people constantly proclaiming, “in my humble opinion” and “I’m just saying,” it can be hard to actually humble oneself, just say nothing, and take the posture of a learner. What does this look like, exactly? For starters, someone with a teachable spirit asks more questions than they give answers. They listen and observe more than they talk. They receive correction with humility and not defensiveness.

When it comes to building relationships, gaining respect, and earning trust in other cultures—contextualization is key. Those who’ve been living and learning in the culture for years will know best (or at least better) how to handle certain situations. If a host says something is not a good idea, believe them. If they tell you what not to do because it’s disrespectful, don’t do it. If they suddenly don’t feel at peace about a pre-planned activity, trust them and follow their lead.

You can do hard things (especially for 10-14 days). It’s not too uncommon for at least one person in a volunteer team to fall prey to culture shock. One minute they’re traveling over oceans to serve, the next minute they’re skipping out on planned activities and opting to stay in their room with their JIF to-go peanut butter packs. Whether it’s the unforgiving climate, the spicy food, the different smells, or some other cultural difference that feels abrasive—culture shock can truly make you feel like you want to abandon ship. The good news is, the person hosting you is no stranger to this feeling and would be happy to help alleviate some of the shock. But they aren’t mind readers, so you’ll need to vocalize the things that are stressing you out or causing you discomfort.

Since your senses won’t be able to adjust to all the newness in such a short amount of time, you might want to adopt a pep talk to say to yourself, like “I can handle this for five more days.” You can also memorize a verse (like this one) that will help you remember why the momentary struggles and difficulties are worth pushing through.

Ultimately, this experience will help you grow in empathy and compassion. When we experience, even for a brief moment, what it’s like to live as a foreigner outside of your own country, it helps us to know how to better serve and love other foreigners when we’re back in a culture we understand.

Train your brain (and tongue) to say, “that’s different,” instead of any other judgmental remark. When something doesn’t line up with our own culture or standards, the initial thought or response might be, “that’s weird” or “how dumb” or “they’re not very good at ____.” But before we let our thoughts go that direction, let’s remove our ethnocentric lenses and start viewing the world through a different perspective. Ethnocentrism is the evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one's own culture. It’s the attitude that your own culture is superior to all others and is the standard by which all other cultures should be measured.

Challenge yourself to see the world in the perspective of others. Challenge yourself to be aware of your own biases, expectations, and the way you perceive other people’s behaviors. If you want to make a remark about something, simply say, “that’s different,” which is both true and unoffensive. Then follow that up with a question to learn more about why it’s different. The more you understand a different culture, the better (and more accurate) your stories will be when you travel back home. Your stories, in turn, will help others better understand a culture and people they might have previously misunderstood or only knew by their stereotypes.

Come to serve those who serve. You might be surprised to find out how many overseas workers would like for volunteers to come and minister to them. I recently did a survey with our expat community to find out what they would like volunteer teams to know or understand before making the trip. The most frequently expressed need was for volunteers to come minister, serve, and love on them and their TCKs (Third Culture Kids). While there’s still the occasional need for teams to help with larger projects, having too many of those is exhausting for the people hosting. And considering how weighty the effects of culture fatigue are, offering to come serve and minister to those already on the ground would be a significant investment in the Kingdom work already taking place in that part of the globe.

Now, this might seem like a random time to start talking about penguins, but bear with me as I close with this interesting fact. During Antarctica’s brutal winters, Emperor penguins form massive huddles in order to stay warm. But one has to wonder about the penguins on the outer edges of this group that still feel the sting of icy wind blowing against their backs. How do they survive the harsh conditions?

Here’s how the huddle works—the penguins in the center eventually rotate out and give the penguins from the outer rim a chance to enter into the warmth provided by their fellow penguins. Isn’t that remarkable?

When I think about this huddle, I can’t help but think about how the Church has some members on the outer edges right now—members who are feeling fatigued and weary. What would it look like to let them circle in for a moment and feel the warmth and encouragement of their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? What kind of impact might it have on the Kingdom of God if overseas workers had volunteers come thousands of miles to make sure they had a moment to rest, recharge, and be encouraged before being sent out to the outer edge again?

If you’re hoping to start forming some volunteer teams soon, start by asking the workers on the outer edges, “what do you need most right now and how can we help?”

Then huddle up and make it happen.

- Alicia from

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